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VOL. 133 | NO. 153 | Friday, August 3, 2018

Bluff Park

Disarmed Cannons’ Exit Signals Six Years of Change in Controversy

By Bill Dries

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Four replicas of Civil War-era cannons placed in then-Confederate Park six years ago were removed from the riverfront site this week, part of the revamping of the property by Memphis Greenspace.

The removal on Wednesday, Aug. 1, by private work crews for the nonprofit owners of the park, symbolizes the ongoing changes to the property, including renaming the parcel Memphis Park. Memphis Greenspace bought the park as well as Health Sciences Park last December – a major step in eliminating Confederate markers from the two parcels.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans raised $72,000 for the replica cannons six years ago while also seeking funds for a granite marker on the Union Avenue end of the plaza around the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in what is now Health Sciences Park.

Jessie Vaughan tries to nab a chunk of granite from the crushed pedestal which supported a statue of Jefferson Davis at Memphis Park on Wednesday, Aug. 1, but security made him replace it. Memphis Greenspace turned over four cannons displayed there to Sons of Confederate Veterans. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

The marker announcing that it was Forrest Park touched off the controversy that led to the City Council renaming three city parks, including Jefferson Davis Park. The city removed the marker fueling the latest in a long line of recurring civic debates about the parks’ tributes to the Confederacy.

SCV leaders claimed they had permission from the city. A C Wharton Jr., the mayor at the time, denied the city ever gave its permission.

With many twists and turns, the marker controversy eventually led to the removal of Confederate monuments this past December in Memphis and Health Sciences Park after the City Council approved the sale of both parks to Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each.

Lee Harris, a city council member in 2012, later remembered Millar and his allies as being unwilling to talk about changes to the parks with council members wanted to rename the parks.

“They walked into City Hall like they owned the place,” he recalled at a University of Memphis Law School forum on the Confederate monuments controversy in October 2017.

Millar came to Memphis Park on Wednesday with papers he said showed SCV owned the cannons.

And Memphis Greenspace President Van Turner, a lawyer, reviewed the papers carefully.

“Based on what we had today, we felt comfortable transferring the cannons to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans,” Turner said of paperwork Millar showed him. “And if everything pans out and everything turns out to be legal, we will just make sure that is memorialized with the proper documentation and they will be the new owners of the cannons. However, they won’t be here in the park.”

Since the base of the Jefferson Davis statue in Memphis Park was dismantled last weekend, crews have removed a 1909 marker by the Confederate Dames organization with the heading “Confederate History of Memphis.”

Turner said decisions are still being made about other markers including one on the naval gunboat battle on the Mississippi River in 1862 that took place within view of what later became the park.

SCV was influential in the wording of the 2008 marker, at one point having the wording changed to reflect that Memphis Mayor John Park did not surrender the city to Union forces after the gunboat battle but instead turned the city over to them.

Another marker that has been uprooted and is awaiting removal nearby tells the story of the park created as a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s as well as the Confederate reunions held in the park.

Issac Rodriguez walks his dogs Blu (left) and Rex through Fourth Bluff Park on Aug 1, 2018 where several Civil War era cannons used to be displayed. Memphis Greenspace turned over the four cannons to the Sons of Confederate Veterans as the nonprofit continued the process of removing Confederate symbols and markers from the Downtown park. (Daily News/Jim Weber)

Memphis Park has also been known as Fourth Bluff Park in recent years. The designation is part of private and philanthropic funding to make the area facing the Wolf River Harbor and the city’s riverfront from the park south to the Cossitt Library a connected gathering place.

The goal is to make it a welcoming place for a diverse group of people for uses as diverse as yoga to live music and dancing to a patio area for reading at the Cossitt.

The Riverfront Development Corporation that made the agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the replica cannons six years ago was rebranded as the Memphis River Parks Partnership earlier this year. And the MRPP has pursued the city’s concept plan for the riverfront that includes linking parks along the river together with the rest of Downtown and Mud Island.

As the cannons were moved Wednesday, work continued below the blufftop park on the former Jefferson Davis Park – now Mississippi River Park.

MRPP president Carol Coletta has also talked of establishing attractions that welcome a diversity of Memphians as well as visitors to the public spaces.

Turner has said his nonprofit is working with MRPP and determining where the items removed go on a permanent basis.

“Right now we are working that process out. … The whole goal is to make sure all of the Confederate memorabilia is relocated,” he said. “This is a clear and clean canvas now. And we want Memphians to paint the picture. … The goal was to give the park back to the people – to the citizens. That’s what we are doing. Hopefully we will get some good suggestions and follow those suggestions accordingly.”

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